Live review and interview
24th Sept 2013
Photography by Phil Tooze – Riot Photography
Interviewing Henry Cluney is a pretty easy job. Firstly, because I was never going to be short of questions for the original Stiff Little Finger on the blistering statements of intent that his band built; the soundtrack which made sense in the context of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Secondly, Cluney is accessible, open and upfront about everything I ask him. Lets not forget just how important his band were; when their debut album “Inflammable Material”, released on Rough Trade, charted at no.14 in the mainstream charts, it created a big part of independent history. And it is this which I begin my interview with…
You played a key part in Rough Trade’s history. What was your working relationship with them like?
Very, very good. We were the first indie album in the British charts. It was only supposed to be a couple of releases initially…then when they were successful we made the album, and the shop was effectively saved by sales of that album – before then they had only really had acts like Scritti Pollitti, who weren’t really selling. It made the label £250,000.But the 50/50 deal they gave us was crucial for us in helping us, it was totally unique. It also led on to the slot supporting Tom Robinson – Third World were supposed to do it, but then they had a big hit so they went off and did their own headline tour.
Did being on a “London label” separate you from the rest of the Belfast scene in any way?
No, almost the opposite, Rough Trade distributed all over the UK so they enabled us to stay in Belfast. We couldn’t have done things without Rough Trade, they were the best thing that happened to us.
What guitars and amps are you using these days?
I always used to use the Gibson LesPaul, but ever since I had a brain tumour last year I found the Gibson to heavy so I’ve been playing a Parker, which is really light. I just use Marshall amps.
What is your favourite SLF song?
Eveybody asks this and I don’t really know! I think maybe Wait and See (from Nobodys Heroes.)
So, this little disagreement with Jake Burns over the band name…
Jake’s current band aren’t really the “real SLF”, but that’s just an opinion. I’ve been saying this since 1994, its not like this has just been said. I know that his current band are trying to record a new album as the “real SLF”.
The Wombles played live recently and I said, “oh, but is it the ORIGINAL Wombles…” its better to make a joke out of it…
Even though you’ve lived in America for 17 years I presume you’re still keeping an eye on Irish politics. Whats your take on the current state of things?
Well Northern Ireland is Britain, not necessarily Ireland. I know there were three murdered last week –its far from over. It might be less frequent but the people are more radical than ever; its fuelled by gangsterism. Its nothing to do with religion either, its just territory.
You were the only Irish punk band really tackling it…
Well the conflict was just day to day life so it was only natural to subsume it into songwriting…
And as much as I love the Irish punk bands who made a kind of statement by not being political (something we discuss when we go into post-interview conversational tangents), no-one can deny that this “subsuming of everyday life” into songwriting worked incredibly well for Stiff Little Fingers; many of the second-wave punk bands had the anger, but SLF had the cause. The raw anger of their songs means there’s no way they’ll translate into a one-man, semi-acoustic format effectively, right? Wrong. Opening with a great version “At the Edge” – a bedroom-door slam classic – the scene is set for a great set from Cluney – unafraid of a bit of good straightforward crowd pleasing, he takes on board all shouted out requests (including “White Christmas”!) and powers his way through Stiff Little Fingers greatest hits, broken up with brightly funny banter (largely shot in my direction, but that’s another story!)
As we talked about in our interview, the troubles in Northern Ireland are far from over, and it is unlikely they ever really will be, but the peak that they were at during SLF’s heyday means that they now play like powerful historical documents. Even stripped back this much, the aural frontline of “Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster,” still sound like perfect soundtracks of that era. At the risk of provoking argument, Cluney is proving himself very worthy of the Stiff Little Fingers name indeed…
At the end of his set, one gig-goer shakes Cluney’s hand and says “well, you didn’t want to be nobody’s hero…but tonight you were!” I couldn’t have put it better myself.